Saturday, June 30, 2012

The things you love don’t owe you anything

"the things you love don’t owe you anything – not success, not plaudits, not a decent night’s sleep, nothing. You give them your effort and devotion because they deserve it, because their presence turns a light on in your dim little life and there will never be enough ways to say thank you.

You can’t confuse what you do in the service of ambition with what you do for love. I love my kid and she literally vomits all over me constantly and I don’t care. I love writing, too, and I’m sorry to admit that I was using it to selfish ends."

This is drawn from "My Book Was a Bad Idea" by Corinne Purtill

The full Salon article is here:

I really like that paragraph above, but I profoundly disagree with the conclusion of the article. I don't think writing a book is a bad idea, even if it's bad or doesn't sell. I don't think it's bad to fail.  I think it can be damn valuable.

Read the article and tell me what you think, ok?


Ali Trotta said...

I love the quote you singled out. It's easily the best, most resonating part of the piece.

As for the conclusion...I couldn't disagree more with the author. For one thing, most of the time, writing isn't glamorous. For another, just because her work was rejected doesn't mean that the universe is telling her to stop. It just means that the project didn't work.

Right now, I've written a total of three complete novels. The first two were awful, but not without merit. There were things about them that were good, but they just didn't work. But they were still valuable, because I learned from them. You learn by doing. You learn writing by writing. Those two novels weren't a waste of my time. They were a learning tool. I'm still trying to rescue the third one, but if it can't be fixed? I'm okay with that. I'll write another one.

Thanks, Janet, for a thought-provoking article to read with my morning coffee.

Kitty said...

She wrote: This was the first significant thing I’ve done professionally that flat-out failed.

She's at the beginning of her education. How many writers have talked about that first book they has stashed in a box somewhere gathering dust. And many of those writers have second and thirds scripts keeping the first company.

Even so, it's possible that with work that first book could still be a winner. After All, “The Diary of a Young Girl,” by Anne Frank, would be rejected by 15 others before Doubleday published it in 1952.
In the summer of 1950, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. turned down the English-language rights to a Dutch manuscript after receiving a particularly harsh reader’s report. The work was “very dull,” the reader insisted, “a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions.” Sales would be small because the main characters were neither familiar to Americans nor especially appealing. “Even if the work had come to light five years ago, when the subject was timely,” the reader wrote, “I don’t see that there would have been a chance for it.”

Some people see 'failure' while others see 'learning experiences.'

AE said...

I don't think the author truly believes it. She makes some offhanded comment about someday paying a Jehovah's witness to distribute it. To me, this sounds like a writer who failed to get their book out there and is reliving their post failure self pity with some sardonic humor article.

Bryon Quertermous said...

In general I agree with you that writing a book is never a good idea. But in this specific case I think the author is right. She never should have written this book because she was writing it for all of the wrong reasons.

In the very first paragraph she talks about the reviews she wants and the TV show appearance she wants, not what the book means to her. She mentions seeing it as a brass ring to grab not a passion to pursue.

It does sound like she's getting the hang of it and I certainly don't think it was waste for her to write that second book that wasn't published. But yeah, that first one, I think it was a mistake.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

If that book had been accepted I shudder to think how large the head of the author would have been. Come on now, rejection is part of the business, get over it, don’t be so full of yourself and your efforts. Trying isn't failure, not trying is.

Someday, when the author is wide awake at 2am waiting for the sound of the car in the driveway because ‘the baby’ is late returning home, or she’s waiting for medical test results regarding said baby, or baby becomes the devil or does devilish things, or baby breaks her pocketbook and her heart, will she say having a baby was a bad idea? Yes. No. Maybe.

Books may not emerge from a uterus but they certainly arrive helpless and in need of you. My writing is as much a part of me as my love for my daughters. At least the kids move out. No empty next from writing. My house is a dictionary of ideas and efforts.

Thanks for the article Janet. It solidified why I do what I do and it’s not for fame and fortune, it’s because it is so much a part of me.

Elisabeth Black said...

She really put herself out there with this article. I respect that.

Maybe I'm wrong about this - I've only had two cups of coffee - but I read the ending as an affirmation of writing for the right reasons, no matter what comes of it. She seems to me an excellent writer and I don't believe she'll fail!

Janet Reid said...

"My house is a dictionary of ideas and efforts."

Melissa said...

"Four and a half years ago I quit my job and moved continents so that I could write a book"

Words that strike fear into the hearts of editors everywhere.

I am slowly learning her lesson as well. Seems each one of my books is less grandiose and more to the heart of me. Some lessons we wish we didn't have to learn the hard way but sometimes that's the only way we learn them.

Richard Gibson said...

I agree with 'Unknown.' I'm 63 years old and I HATE to fail, and I always have. HATE it.

But it is still among the most valuable things that happen to me.

Laura Hughes, MittensMorgul said...

I read this article yesterday, and thought pretty much the same thing the other commenters here did. One of the first things I read when I started learning about the publishing industry was I'd need to grow a tough reptilian skin because failure and rejection are the two most common experiences on the road to publication. And even more importantly, rejection is not a personal judgment against you.

Writing a book you want to see published someday is like extreme blind dating. We spend years writing what we think is a fantastic book. We research agents, agencies, and publishers. We send our best possible pitch out into the universe. We're essentially proposing marriage to strangers on the strength of a few pages of writing. It is scary, but if you don't learn to let it roll off your back and move on, then maybe writing that book was a bad idea. It's not that the book itself lacked merit, but that author's skin wasn't tough enough.

I love writing. I'll never stop writing. It would be nice to be a published, successful author, but that's not why I started writing, and it's not why I keep writing.

And my first thought wasn't "Ooh! I'll get to be a guest on the Daily Show if I write a book!" That's just silly. I want to be on the Late Late Show. HAHAHA!!!

Anonymous said...

I think the book is always more important than the author. When you get to the point you think the reverse is true, you're in trouble.

Ted Fox said...

If you're truly in love with writing, as I believe you have to be to one day sell a book (unless you're Snooki), I don't know that you can ever really view an unpublished manuscript as a failure.

For one, as Ali and others have mentioned, there's the experience you gain from writing said book. But it's also a very real possibility you might simply be trying to a sell a great book at the wrong time.

I write humor, and my first book--an A.J. Jacobs-y memoir--drew a decent response from agents. Ultimately, though, they felt I didn't yet have enough of a (brace yourselves) platform for them to sell it. And that's the rub of it: It's not just whether you can write. It also has to fit the realities of the market.

So when a particularly kind agent asked me if I would be willing to try something different before trying to get that first book published, I jumped at the chance. Now I've had the unbelievable experience of actually seeing my book on the shelves in a bookstore.

Book #1 may just sit on my laptop forever. Or I may be able to come back to it down the road. Either way, writing it was well worth it.

Sophie Littlefield said...

No, no, no, no, NO. You don't get to show up at my beloved collective announcing you have made a vase of popsicle sticks and expect it to get gallery space. We bleed words here, we write several books before we even understand how flawed they are, we burn ourselves down to ashes and bones and then humbly begin again on page one, page one, always page one. we are acolytes, all of us, and if it's difficult at times to look into the bright sun of others' early success, that particular pain diminishes eventually because you come to realize that it's an entirely different exercise. Book tours, media appearances, listing - irrelevant to the only moment that counts, which is the one in which you return to the page and ask yourself how you can be a better writer today and are GRATEFUL for the opportunity, not because a publisher has offered you something in trade, but between you get to CREATE with WORDS. if that doesn't chill/ignite/inspire/drive you, then go do something else. If you stay long enough to finish a book, don't look furtively around hoping that all the other kids are admiring you. Put your little boat in the water, get back to work, and eventually you'll have learned enough to come back and understand what it was that you made - whether it garnered others' admiration or not.

Whenever I meet someone with that kind of passion, I'm happy to consider them a colleague, no matter what, if anything, they've published.

Amy Schaefer said...

One of my favorite parts of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has Grandpa trapped in a dungeon with a group of aged scientists. Together they sing, "From the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success." I believe that, and I've tried to take that to heart when my work gets rejected. I also see those roses blooming when something I wrote gets accepted. It is all part of the work and learning and work and work work work that goes into writing.

I couldn't keep going if I were only focused on publication. That would be deeply depressing. I am just trying to write the best book I can. And to make it better. And better. And then I'll send it out there, but that isn't the most important part. And whether this book gets accepted or not, the next one will be better. And so on.

Janet Reid said...

I think I'm going to have Sophie Littlefield's comment set to music.

In fact, there might be some other phrases from this comment trail in there too.

Gayle Carline said...

My first completed novel lies on my external hard drive, where I use it for spare parts. Somewhere within the shelf space of my house, there are five or six more novels that never got to The End. I can't say they made me feel like a failure, but they did make me feel like either I didn't have the backbone to finish, or I told crappy stories. Two finished, published books later, the writing is still hard, but I know when I have a good story and how to get it told. I think the author will get there - she's starting to understand why she's writing.

Janet, I had a dream about you last night. You flew in from NYC to my hometown in southern California, just to sit down at a table in the local country club, tell me you didn't want to represent my book because it's midlist and I need to write a blockbuster to be taken seriously. I told you, "But I like to write midlist mysteries because I like to read midlist mysteries." You shrugged, smiled, then got up from the table and flew back to NYC.

Really, you could have just emailed. LOL

Unknown said...

I disagree with the conclusion, but any article that contains "My spirit animal has been kicked in the nuts" is well worth the time it takes to read.

Adele said...

Writing the book was not a mistake. It was an ego project, and she needed to go through it and have it fail so she could understand that.

Somehow I don't think she has fully learned that lesson. She did not mention what the story was. I can understand that while writing the book with stars in her eyes she would want to hug the story to herself, but if she has truly let it go, why not tell the world so somebody else can write it? Is this not a story that needs to be told? If so, let someone else tell it. If not, well, that explains why the book didn't sell.

dylan said...

Dear Ms. Reid,

How many times have I listened to somebody ranting about a disastrous affair they’d had with some selfish, demanding asshole, and as I ride out the recital of crimes it gradually dawns on me, “He/she is still in love with the asshole!”

Ms. Purtill may be trying to convince herself that writing her book was a misguided waste of time, but she didn’t convince me. The urgency that long ago compelled her to upend her life in order to track and capture the story seems to be still lurking in a remote catacomb of her being, and to represent a lingering romantic danger to her new-found domestic complacency – an obsession still so alluring and provocative that she is moved to condemn the impurity of her earlier aspirations, and distance her mature maternal self from the entire undertaking. This in spite of reaping the presumable rewards of having traded genuine (though perhaps naïve, half-assed) youthful ambition for crappy nappies and sour grapes.

I also wondered while I read her piece if it wasn’t (on some sub-level) intended to be a covert, back-channel teaser. Though she provides precious few details about the story she has nevertheless aroused my interest. She certainly can write. Southeast Asia, eh? A cashew farming connection? Intriguing.

Ms. Purtill, please send that Jehovah’s Witness my way when you get the copier running.


Charley said...

"I don't think it's bad to fail. I think it can be damn valuable."

Yup, Janet, we learn from our mistakes. That's why I'm so smart.


Alec Breton said...

Sure, the road to getting published is rough. What's new?

I used to model my writing on Forsythe's "The Day of the Jackal," Orwell's "1984," Hemingway's "Old Man and the Sea," and similar stories. It helped how my job allowed me to traipse across multiple continents — to meet people right out of those story worlds. I even have the pictures.

So, I would write stories with detailed "mechanics" … but with spare dialog. Still, the stories had diabolical plots about stealing wonder weapons and getting revenge on terrorists. Cool!

Those stories were plot-driven, serious expositions which eschewed humor, and the characters were mysterious — but maybe also overly enigmatic and distant. It worked for those other authors. No problem then … right?

Unfortunately, it wasn't working for me. Something seemed to be missing — but what?

One day at a folk festival, I was surrounded by people in a massive 1930's ballroom. The live traditional Irish music was magical. Even though there were hundreds dancing, somehow most of them faded away. This is because one dancer "owned the place" from the moment she sashayed in.

Space and time bent around her.

On the outside this dancer was about as pretty as a lumpy sack of potatoes with two legs. However, her inner beauty was, well … amazing. She brightened everyone's day. Seeing her change others somehow changed me.

That's the exact moment when I found my "voice" as a writer.

I started writing mostly dialog. My stories threw off "mechanics" and were about people who'd rather steal something more precious than state secrets or expensive paintings. These characters coveted other's tears and heartbeats … and snatched them up without apology.

However, I got embarrassed about transcribing all that "mushy stuff." I put those charcters in a box and went back to stories about plotting and scheming. Ahem! Yes, those dry mechanics were back again. An odd thing happened though. The characters would not accept being boxed up. 

They wanted to bend space and time too.

They started to stand up on the stage and tell me what to write. Huh? Are they allowed to do this? I was indulgent and let them speak. However, I didn't realize at first how those characters were "anchor babies" … and maybe skilled confidence game tricksters too? Now all of their relatives are squatting inside the recesses of my brain. I didn't even see it coming.

Those characters tug on me in the stairwell: "Here's what I did in the war. I killed Nazis" Another whispers in my ear when I'm sleeping: "I'm going to make that person love me." Another insists I pull the car over and write down what he's has to say: "No! It can't wait … but you're going to enjoy the juicy bits."

Like it or not, I might unexpectedly find myself in a garden center and think, "So and so would really like this." Wait! So and so doesn't exist … outside of my stories. Does it really matter? So and so gives me those great pep talks though.

Now I've got an even bigger problem. I'm drowning in all the stories of these people's grandparents, parents, spouses-to-be, and their future children. [Oh, are they going to be exhasperated by that strong-willed child. Payback … sweet patback!] Anyway, for a bunch of squatters, at least these families of characters have intriguing lives.

I've learned a lot from them too — including more empathy and compassion than I thought I had left.

Now, my main problem is which story to make into the "Great Anerican novel." Some "type A personality" character is going to be reallly pissed if it isn't him or her to go first. Imagine telling the rest of them to wait until the series about "those other folks" is done. What is the sound of a hundred characters pouting, bribing, cajoling, etc? I bet it's a lot louder than the sound of one hand clapping.

GillyB said...

I wrote my first completed novel when I was in my teens, and it's both the best and worst thing I've ever written. It's super funny and heartbreaking, but the structure is a mess.

I keep it there so I can pull bits and pieces out of it and adopt them into my other works. I also have it there so I can read it and see what was going on it my head- see where my heart was. It's almost like a time capsule of myself. I'm still young, so it wasn't that long ago. But knowing what was happening in my life, and being able to see how I channeled that at the time, is totally worth it.

I also write primarily YA, so whenever I need to get in touch with the Teenage Me, I go pay a visit to that first novel. And it is so much fun.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I'm nearing completion of the first draft of my fifth book. Yesterday, I had a conversation with my beta about the fourth book. Even though I knew before giving it to her that it was a hot mess, dealing with her criticism dealt a blow to the very little writing ego I have. It's also a good lesson in not being owed anything just because I love writing and, dang it, it was my fourth try and things should have been better or easier by now. The book doesn't owe me anything. I owe myself and the story. I want it to be as good as I can make it, just to do it justice.

Which is why I'm not giving up. Both the beta and I agree the book is salvageable, anyway, because the underlying structure is solid and the problems are all on the surface. But even if it weren't, I don't think the book was a bad idea, nor were the two novels I've trunked along the way. I learned something about writing and about myself in doing them, and that's valuable. And because I knew many of the reasons why the last one was messy, I've been able to avoid a lot of the same mistakes with the current WIP. (Or so I hope.) This author expected things to come too easily, just because she hadn't failed at anything before. That's just not how life or writing works.

Unknown said...

Nice article, but I think her conclusion is pretty foolish. "I got rejected twice, so the universe says that I should stop writing?" If you really think that, I don't think that you love writing.

I don't love writing. I go nuts when I try to NOT write. Writing (story creation) is the filter through which I see life, and I am constantly turning over moments in my head, looking for how they can be presented in service of my Truth. I've written six novels at this point in my life -- I'm in my mid-30s. Several of them happened when I was a kid, and they show that. I learned from them. The others -- some I've shopped, and they've been rejected. I'm back to the drawing board on that.

I've never once thought the universe was telling me Stop. I thought the universe was telling me Get Better. Well, sometimes, I feel like the Publishing Universe is saying Write Something More Marketable, which I understand, but struggle with.

Anyway, yes. As you say, nice article, silly conclusion.

Rosalind Sinclair said...

I'd be lying if I denied dreaming of publication. But I write because I can't NOT write. Since I was old enough to built forts under the backyard rhododendrons, where I whiled away "solitary" afternoons creating adventures for my toy dinosaurs, I've had to tell stories. They're in my grade school notebooks, the margins of college textbooks, the backs of discarded spreadsheets, and Twitter. I'd love to see them between glossy covers some day, but no matter what the universe says 'll never stop writing, because it's who I am.

Nathan said...

I've written ten novels in the past four years and sold none of them. I did this while finishing college, working, getting married, and providing service in both the community and my religion.

I "tested the waters" by epublishing a Kindle book with no success. I sold about enough copies to pay off the cover artist.

Looking back, those first books I wrote were pretty bad. Even the books I wrote before then (several dozen from middle through high school) weren't fantastic. But the point was that I had stories to tell and I wanted to tell them.

Would it be great if I could make a living off this? Absolutely. I would love to have others experience what I'm writing. I'd love to be able to just chug out four to five books a year and get paid for it. It would be a dream.

But you don't get there without work. You can't just drop everything for that one novel and if it fails give up. It's part of the learning experience.

I'm twenty-six and I plan to write until I die. Maybe someday one will sell. Maybe not. But the point is that I'm doing it because I love it. I fly out to conventions and meet with other authors/editors/agents because it's fun. I write because I can't see myself NOT writing.

Every book taught me something, even if the book was awful. The only thing I can do is be damn sure the next one is better than the last.

mulletbraid said...

The book itself was not a bad idea. It may have turned out to be a bad book, but that doesn't mean the idea was bad, or that writing it was a bad idea. It just means the execution needed a lot of work and maturity.

Many who continue to write despite rejection eventually arrive at this attitude: "Since this isn't going to make me rich and famous, I'm going to quit writing to please others and do this for myself."

She took a different path to that conclusion, but she got there. Bravo.

She wanted to create and be lauded for "important work." I have to laud her for her attempts to fight "the obnoxiously persistent conviction that external validation is the only kind that counts." That's an inner demon worth slamming to the mat.

Doesn't mean that writing to be successful is a morally unfit motivation. Unrealistic, perhaps, but some write to put bread on the table. That motivation works quite well for them.

I'm leery of the "the ONLY reason to write is for love of writing" concept because damn few sentences containing absolutes about a creative art can survive without eventually looking ludicrous.

Stacy said...

Stephen Pressfield has a great saying about this type of writer. You either write for Track 1 or Track 2. Track 1 is the work, the act of creating as a protest against the bleak reality of your circumstances. Track 2 is the bling. This writer got caught up in the bling. I can only hope she comes through her second act and writes a third with a flourishing ending. She is a good writer and it would be a shame if she gives up. And hey - she got published in Salon. That's nothing to sneeze at.

Geek Amicus said...

I am going to bookmark this page and come back to it every time I need a kick in the pants. Every time I doubt my ability or sit in judgment of my work and determine that it sucks the big wazoo, I'm going to come here to get a big dose of "you are not alone". Other people "bleed words" and work their lives around a need to write. Other people have stopped writing something because it just wasn't good enough, but they've kept going and written something else. They've practiced and polished and written more -- and written better -- because they love to write. They too have a half dozen unfinished projects or projects that are simply finished but have soldiered on because they would rather write than whatever it is that they do to pay the mortgage. Some of them even seem to have managed to pay the mortgage with their words. So I carry on.

I needed this today. I wrote an article that was picked up by a major news service on Friday. I was positively giddy with accomplishment until I read some of the reader's comments. Then I was scarred. Madame Shark is a veritable Fairy Godmother compared to what people are willing to say anonymously. I learned a lot about myself and the life of a writer this weekend. My skin has been thickened by a pretty great degree, but I also learned that I do really love to write. And I'll do it again and again and again because it makes me happy to do it.

Jane Lebak said...

Ms. Reid, your last question (actually, that "okay" at the end) makes me wonder if you were one of the agents who rejected her memoir (after which she gave up trying.)

Any writer who gives up after a handful of rejections is missing that spark that would have kept her writing book after book, but more than that, it's not the rejecting parties' fault if such a person gives up. The decision to reject is the editor's or the agent's. The decision to turn that rejection into failure is the writer's.

And she's still writing. She's just not writing a book.

Jane Lebak said...

I blogged a response to this on The problem is our definition of success.

Alec Breton said...

I enjoyed Jane Lebak's blog response to the Salon.Com article on "giving up" if someone's first books don't sell.

Here is my extra 2¢ on the question raised by Lebak's article about "What did Skipper Dan Do Wrong?"

A person can think of repetition as practice and "practice makes perfect." The key is to make the practice more creative and fun. Then, the chances for good things resulting will be increased.